1College of Nursing, Washington State University, Spokane, WA 99210-1495, USA
2Family and Child Nursing, University of Washington, Seattle, WA 98195, USA
3College of Nursing, Seattle University, Seattle, WA 98122, USA
Copyright © 2012 Cynthia Fitzgerald et al. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
Nursing education programs may face significant difficulty as they struggle to prepare sufficient numbers of advanced practice registered nurses to fulfill the vision of helping to design an improved US healthcare system as described in the Institute of Medicine's “Future of nursing” report. This paper describes specific challenges and provides strategies to improve advanced practice nursing clinical education in order to ensure that a sufficient number of APRNs are available to work in educational, practice, and research settings. Best practices are identified through a review of classic and current nursing literature. Strategies include intensive interprofessional collaborations and radical curriculum revisions such as increased use of simulation and domestic and international service work. Nurse educators must work with all stakeholders to create effective and lasting change.
National and international reports, including one published recently by the Institute of Medicine , describe the potential for advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) to contribute to the provision of high-quality healthcare as part of comprehensive healthcare reform [2, 3]. Preparing APRNs for practice and fostering the role of APRNs in a variety of educational, clinical, and research settings are necessary steps toward achieving this vision. Given the current economic and political climate in the United States, however, success may be elusive. At present, a shrinking number of nurse educators carry an increasingly large responsibility for educating a declining number of APRNs [4, 5]. In many settings, outdated regulations, policies, and biases prevent APRNs from practicing to the fullest extent of their education, skills, and competencies [6–8]. Some US-based physician organizations have mounted campaigns aimed at discrediting APRN education and practice and decrying the potential of APRNs to provide cost-effective and clinically efficient care [9, 10].
While barriers to practice are significant, innovative approaches to clinical education and curricular transformation offer promise to nursing administrators, nursing educators, and practicing APRNs who are committed to preparing a highly qualified APRN workforce that will serve future generations of Americans. The rapid development and establishment of the practice doctorate has generated cautious enthusiasm among many nurse educators who are eager to help APRNs achieve their fullest potential in clinical practice. The purpose of this paper is to describe challenges in providing APRN clinical education and to propose achievable strategies for educating future APRNs to participate fully in transforming the United States healthcare system. We argue that the time is right to identify and implement educational practices that will lead to the optimal development of clinical skills, knowledge, and practice acumen and help meet the goals endorsed by national nursing organizations and set forth in the “Future of nursing” report published in 2011 . While the IOM report is extraordinarily thorough, its scope does not include suggestions for specific strategies for improving APRN clinical education, a gap this paper seeks to fill.
Advanced practice registered nurses include nurse practitioners (NPs), certified nurse-midwives (CNMs), certified registered nurse anesthetists (CRNAs), and clinical nurse specialists (CNSs). APRNs represent an underutilized source of quality health care providers . Only 3.8% of the 2.4 million US registered nurses (RNs) are NPs, 0.3% are CNMs, 1.1% are CRNAs, and 0.9% (down from 1.2% in 2004) are CNSs . While the nurse anesthetist was the first advanced practice role to emerge in the late 19th century, formal APRNs education programs did not start until the 20th century. The first nurse-midwifery program began in 1932 at the Maternity Care Association in New York, and in 1954, Rutgers University offered the first CNS graduate program with a specialty in psychiatric and mental health. The role of the nurse practitioner then developed in the 1960s with the increase in federal funding for advanced nursing education in order to fill the need for primary care providers . Since the various roles have emerged, APRNs consistently provide high-quality, cost-effective patient care in a variety of healthcare settings . Today, the majority of APRNs are employed in primary care settings, with most providing women’s health, obstetrics, and mental health services . One hallmark of APRN practice is the provision of care directed at illness prevention, health promotion, and improved patient care outcomes . APRN practice represents one aspect of the nursing profession’s ongoing efforts to provide high-quality healthcare to diverse populations. Overcoming barriers to APRN practice in today’s healthcare environment will lead to improvements in health care for many, especially among traditionally underserved populations.
We define many challenges associated with providing effective APRN clinical education, particularly in clinical practice settings. Our analysis of the challenges in Table 1 led us to identify innovative educational and programmatic strategies with potential to improve APRN education. The strategies we present include both internal (those related to educational institutions) and external (those related to social, political, and interprofessional practice issues) factors.
Table 1: Challenges to effective APRN clinical education.
3. Internal Challenges
For the purpose of this paper, we defined internal challenges as those existing within the profession and/or within educational organizations responsible for preparing APRNs for practice. When considering these internal challenges, we discovered, not surprisingly, that the literature was dominated by information about the critical role of the growing nursing and nursing faculty shortages. Clearly, not enough qualified nursing faculty are available to meet the nation’s need for increased numbers of APRNs, and the projections describing future shortfalls are bleak [15, 16]. While the nursing faculty shortage has been well described in the literature, some aspects of it are germane in a discussion about APRN education, especially given the relatively large numbers of potential students unable to gain admission because of limited faculty resources .
Educational organizations find it increasingly difficult to attract qualified APRNs willing to serve in faculty roles. The demand for APRNs in both educational institutions and in a variety of practice settings has increased simultaneously, but educational institutions are disadvantaged by their inability to offer competitive compensation packages. Constrained budgets result in compressed salaries throughout higher education systems, increasing the gap between salaries available in practice and those offered for teaching positions.
When APRNs do pursue education at the PhD level, they often graduate only to face the reality of the tenure process in research-driven educational institutions. Emphasis on the role of faculty in conducting research and generating research-related revenue limits the availability of PhD-prepared APRN faculty to participate in direct clinical supervision of APRN students. One result is that the primary responsibility for APRN clinical education falls to faculty not eligible for tenure  and whose salaries are typically lower than those available for APRNs in clinical practice . Educational institutions without established faculty practice plans face additional barriers for supporting and retaining faculty who need to practice to maintain certification and licensure, in addition to teaching and meeting tenure criteria.
As many schools of nursing transition to the Doctorate of Nursing Practice (DNP), existing advanced practitioner faculty without a doctorate may find that they are underqualified . Institutional requirements for supervisory committees of doctoral students may require faculty to hold equivalent doctorates, and supervision of DNP students may increase faculty workloads. PhD-prepared nursing faculty may lack the advanced practice qualifications to teach specialty content in APRN programs. Smaller educational institutions may not have the institutional structures or additional faculty necessary to support the development of DNP programs . While the development of DNP preparation and practice offers much promise for preparing the future workforce, the transition process may temporarily exacerbate the shortage of available clinical faculty and result in decreased numbers of APRN graduates. It is too soon to tell whether these transitional challenges will affect the quality of APRN clinical education. The net result may be additional reductions in the available supply of APRNs at precisely the time when they are most needed to address the challenges of healthcare reform in the US .
The number of annual graduates from APRN programs has fallen from a peak in 1998 . This decline is multifaceted, relating to a variety of barriers facing nurses who might otherwise pursue graduate education. Admission to APRN educational programs can be difficult. As many as 17% of graduate nursing programs are highly selective, and there are insufficient openings for qualified applicants . Program costs present challenges to potential applicants whose educational plans are altered by the recent economic downturn in the US as well as by declines in available employer tuition-reimbursement programs; in 2009, 15% of masters of nursing programs cited affordability as a commonly stated reason for students not enrolling . Program location can be a deterrent to nurses who are place bound by responsibilities to support family and provide income. Although the need for more APRNs in rural communities is critical, APRN programs are less accessible to nurses in rural areas, where there are fewer nurses, and nurses must contend with lower salaries and longer commutes . In some areas, there are vacancies in some nursing programs, while others may turn away qualified applicants. Additionally, there are significant shortages of Hispanic, Native American, and men in nursing and in APRN programs. White, non-Hispanic women make up over 83% of APRN nurses . The result is a professional nursing community that does not reflect the diversity of the US population .
Since World War II, educational programs offering Associate Degrees have proliferated and graduates of those programs have become Registered Nurses (ADNs) in increasing numbers. In turn, this internal challenge has influenced the shortage of APRNs, given that nurses prepared in ADN programs are less likely than bachelor’s prepared nurses to obtain graduate degrees . If ADNs do pursue graduate education, time to completion of an APRN program expands, given the requirement for ADNs to complete bachelor’s education before entering a graduate nursing program. Such problems clearly bring the APRN supply needs back to nurse educators and leaders at all levels.
4. External Challenges
The primary challenge facing APRN education from outside educational institutions is the limited number of available clinical sites and preceptors . To increase the number of APRNs prepared to practice independently and to the fullest extent of their scope of practice, nursing education programs must increase both the number and quality of available preceptors and sites. Since many existing faculty practice settings are inadequate to meet this need, educational institutions must rely on cooperative, volunteer community preceptors. There is a shortage of APRN preceptors, particularly in acute care or hospital-based specialties (i.e., CNMs, neonatal nurse practitioners (NNPs), and acute care nurse practitioners). Often, APRN specialties require that preceptors hold the same specialty certification. For example, certified nurse-midwives (CNMs) must provide education to CNM students . While there is a great need for APRN graduates to serve rural areas, there are even fewer preceptors and role models available in these underserved locations.
The limited supply of potential preceptors and clinical sites is exacerbated by competitive forces. Medical resident preparation dominates the use of available clinical sites in hospitals. Federal funding through the Medicare program supports resident education, but not APRN preparation. In many academic medical centers, APRNs are employed for medical student and resident education, further reducing the field of potential preceptors for APRN students . Nursing educational institutions are concentrated in large urban areas near hospitals and may compete with other nursing educational institutions for clinical sites and preceptors.
State regulations and specialty certification agencies place additional requirements on educational institutions that further limit the capacity to prepare APRN students. Direct supervision of students limits the number of students individual preceptors may have at any given time. The requirement for low student-faculty ratios in clinical courses makes APRN education expensive. For example, the National Task Force on Quality Nurse Practitioner Education recommends faculty-to-student ratios of 1 : 6 in situations where there is indirect clinical supervision . Requirements for supervised student clinical practice in most APRN programs are typically established at a minimum of 500 hours, and the DNP requires at least 1000 hours of clinical practice . This increase in DNP student practice hours will increase the need for qualified and willing preceptors.
The limited availability of national funding poses a significant external challenge to successful APRN education. Increasing the capacity of educational institutions to educate APRNs requires additional funding. The current prioritization for medical education and residency training through federal support makes increasing funding for nursing education difficult. Furthermore, current research funding priorities by the National Institute of Nursing Research do not support the investigation of nursing education issues, nor do they support research about the implementation of innovative practice education models at the graduate level. In many research organizations, nursing faculty pursuing academic careers and tenure are discouraged from pursuing clinical education research as a funded line of inquiry. Among potential APRN preceptors, there may be a lack of willingness to precept APRN students due to a lack of incentives beyond the ideals of serving the profession. Most educational institutions are unable to compensate preceptors financially for their teaching roles and are limited in the nonfinancial benefits they may provide preceptors such as faculty titles and access to educational resources. Potential preceptors may see the challenges to practitioner productivity or the additional time commitments of being a preceptor as disincentives to assuming the role. The lack of formal preparation and support for the teaching role may further discourage APRNs from being a preceptor. While direct or graduate entry training is increasingly used as a mechanism for increasing the supply of APRN graduates, potential preceptors may be resistant to training students with little or no health care experience.
The final challenge to increasing the preparation of APRNs is closely tied to the profession’s relationship with the citizens who are served. Nursing continues to be a profession dominated by Caucasian women, a limitation that affects the profession’s negotiation of relationships with other more male-dominated professions. In addition to the chronic underrepresentation of men, diverse populations, and rural inhabitants in the nursing workforce, advanced practice nursing continues to contend with an identity crisis among the US population as a whole, who suffer from a knowledge deficit regarding the skills and abilities of APRNs. Historically, nurses work at the direction of physicians, and cultural and occupational patterns that reinforce this dependent relationship are slow to change. While it is not clear the American Medical Association’s efforts to counter the IOM’s Future of Nursing Report will be entirely successful , the lack of support for full-scope APRN practice from this influential organization is disappointing to those with a vision for the provision of collaborative care in an efficient and effective interprofessional model. Negotiating a new position in health care for nurses and APRNs will continue to be complicated by gender politics as well as power positioning.
5. Strategies and Solutions
The IOM report presents an unparalleled challenge to nursing educators, that is, to foster the development of an “improved education system that promotes seamless academic progression” [1, page 164]. Significant innovation and change are needed to accomplish this vision and to increase the number of APRN graduates. While some of what is required must be implemented on a nation-wide scale, there is strong potential for nursing education programs to implement local and regional strategies that will increase the numbers of APRN graduates prepared to practice at the fullest extent of their education and licensure.
In preparing this discussion of strategies and solutions described in Table 2, we considered our own experience as educators in graduate nursing programs and explored recommendations from multiple authors describing approaches that have been successful in enhancing the education of APRNs. Taken individually, each of these strategies has the potential to help programs make incremental improvements in the recruitment, retention, and preparation of graduate nursing students. In combination, these strategies offer the promise of helping nursing education affect transformation in the preparation and practice of APRNs.
Table 2: Solutions and strategies.
For the purposes of this paper, internal strategies are those that can be undertaken within nursing education programs and the universities that house them, while external are those that reflect some level of engagement with other organizations including other nursing education programs and healthcare organizations.
5.1. Internal Strategies
As noted above and in the IOM report, the expansion of advanced nursing education programs is hampered by a faculty shortage that represents the convergence of multiple factors. These include supply-side problems related to the nursing shortage itself as well as to competitive factors that reflect, among other things, the relatively high cost of graduate nursing education when compared to the earning potential of nurse educators. Like prelicensure nursing education, advanced practice nursing education is resource intensive, requiring sophisticated laboratory settings, computer equipment, and high faculty-to-student ratios.
One approach with potential to aid in the nursing faculty shortage and to make more clinical resources available for APRN education involves internal efforts by educational institutions to develop and strengthen collaborative partnerships. The American Association of Colleges of Nursing  and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation  recommend that educational organizations work with one another as well as with hospitals and healthcare organizations to develop innovative capacity expanding approaches for preparing nurses and nurse educators and to foster the expansion of nursing education programs. These programs are likely to be costly, but if the benefits can be well-described, educational institutions, hospitals, and healthcare organizations may be willing to invest in their success. As one example of innovative collaboration between university programs, Siewert and her colleagues from the University of Iowa College of Nursing report on collaborative efforts with the University of Missouri at Kansas City that allows for dual enrollment of neonatal nurse practitioner students and helps to optimize faculty resources and enhance student learning opportunities at both institutions . An innovative array of academic and service partnerships linking Bassett Medical Center in Cooperstown, New York, with educational programs at the State University of New York Institute for Technology in Utica, New York now offers tuition support for advanced practice nursing preparation with an emphasis on improving care in a large rural community . These programs and others like them offer much promise in addressing faculty shortages and other challenges while offering innovative contemporary APRN education to place-bound students.
In almost every aspect, curriculum, teaching, and learning must undergo radical transformation, as Benner and her colleagues asserted in 2010 . Nursing programs have traditionally been content driven, but the needs of students and faculty are changing along with those of the workplace . At the core of these new and revised curricula is an emphasis on integrating established educational and professional competencies with educational strategies that encourage problem solving and that enhance students’ critical thinking abilities. Such curricula will encourage the simultaneous development of innovative learning activities, ensure effective student evaluations, and provide clinical experiences that emphasize the optimization of student practice outcomes . Competency-based education may have additional advantages including the development of more learner competence, confidence, and compassion [34, 35].
Problem-based learning can be integrated within a competency-based framework or as a stand-alone strategy to enhance the development of critical thinking and hypothesis-testing skills [36, 37]. Problem-based learning (also known by other terms with slightly different applications, including case-, practice-, or concept-based learning) helps students ground learning in relevant clinical experiences [38, 39]. As students engage closely with faculty in exploring new concepts and identifying new solutions, the process of discovery can lead to the development of improved clinical judgment .
The use of simulation in nursing education is becoming increasingly popular for its ability to enhance the critical thinking of advanced practice nursing students and because it provides a useful evaluative tool for faculty . Through the use of high-fidelity computerized simulation models, APRN students safely develop new knowledge and skills about high-risk, low-volume practices . Other simulation activities involving scripted patients or rotation through skill-based practice stations in laboratory settings also offer enhanced opportunity for student learning and faculty participation. Clinical simulation activities can add greater value by linking APRN students with medicine, pharmacy, and rehabilitation students across the health sciences .
Interprofessional education offers the potential to enhance efficiency in the provision of clinical education for all students  and fosters collaborative practice beyond the educational period. Success has been demonstrated when APRN education has been integrated with specialty and generalist physician practice in a mental health practice setting, as described by Roberts and her colleagues  and likely has much potential to improve education and patient care in a variety of other settings. While mistrust by physicians of the APRN role threatens to constrain the development of collaborative educational models, the promise of interprofessional education also has the potential to unite APRN and physician practice. Such efforts to integrate education and training hold much promise for the US healthcare system as a whole.
Distance education helps create opportunities for otherwise place-bound nurses to pursue graduate studies to become APRNs by extending the reach of nursing education programs beyond traditional boundaries. Improvements in online course management software and evidence-based distance teaching pedagogical approaches provide a foundation for the asynchronous delivery of high-quality and engaging course content. The use of streaming media and a wide range of unified communication technologies (e.g., video cameras, instant messaging, web-connected whiteboards, etc.) enhance faculty-student and student-student engagement. Despite the obvious challenges of providing adequate supervision for APRN students who may be completing coursework from remote areas and with little direct faculty contact, the rewards of accessing optimal professional education using distance education technologies can be great for place-bound students living in underserved communities. To help these programs and students to succeed, educational programs can develop innovative faculty hiring agreements, hiring APRNs who live in the students’ home communities to provide supervision for didactic learning experiences as well as for clinical practice and evaluation. The education and support these faculty members may require can be provided in part by professional development or continuing education programming.
5.2. External Strategies
Not all responsibility for enhancing advanced practice nursing lies with classroom or faculty-driven learning activities. As the number of available clinical sites and preceptors has declined, the need to consider effective alternatives for APRN clinical education has increased. Nursing education programs must “aggressively pursue alternative clinical learning sites and experiences” if they want to assure that students participate in appropriate patient-centered learning activities .
The development of partnerships with a broad range of community organizations and providers can create mutual benefits and provide additional learning opportunities for APRN students. While faculty may believe that an ideal clinical placement would pair students with preceptors in one-to-one relationships with clients arriving at set appointment times, there may be great value in developing partnerships with agencies and individuals who provide care in different models and settings . The development of community partnerships with a service-learning framework can provide APRN students with innovative opportunities to engage in health promotion, physical and mental health assessments, and intervention with individuals who might not otherwise receive healthcare services in a given setting. For example, assignment of students to a correctional facility could offer students the opportunity to engage with individuals in need of health assessment or behavioral intervention , even in the absence of a formally organized on-site health clinic. Assigning students to work with clients through a variety of community agencies can enhance learning opportunities for APRN students and improve care for individuals seeking nonhealthcare services such as meal delivery or day care . Facilitating student engagement in homeless centers can provide a variety of learning opportunities while serving to increase student understanding of social conditions and mental illness . These innovative learning opportunities can provide students with opportunities to build personally meaningful collateral skills even when the emphasis is on accomplishing practice-related learning objectives [50, 51].
In 2004, Connolly and her colleagues described the innovative creation of a collaborative approach to nursing education . Although writing about associate degree nursing education, key concepts have the potential for application in advanced practice education. These include the introduction of interprofessional collaboration that links nursing, medicine, and allied health personnel education within single community health settings, allowing the development of knowledge and skills that are essential to advanced practice nursing.
Academic health centers that integrate faculty practice opportunities with clinical education experience opportunities may well provide ideal environments for APRN education. Not all graduate nursing programs are situated on campuses that house such centers, however. Heller and Goldwater suggest that the development of innovative patient-driven programs, designed to improve access, may also offer enhanced clinical education opportunities for advanced practice students . Their experience with the development of a mobile clinic offering primary care services by APRNs and their supervising faculty, dubbed the “Wellmobile,” illustrates a comprehensive and innovative approach to clinical care. In addition to providing a structured environment that places emphasis on the clinical education of APRN students, the “Wellmobile” also offered students the opportunity to develop strong business and management skills .
Although they can be costly and somewhat difficult to coordinate and offer, domestic and international healthcare missions do offer APRN students and faculty innovative opportunities to provide care to the underserved. While many available international opportunities are useful for student enrichment alone, with secure funding, careful planning, and rigorous attention to the management of learning and evaluation, successful programs can extend clinical education beyond local limits . Participation in mission-driven clinical experiences offers students opportunities to provide care for vulnerable populations and can serve as cultural immersion experiences, enriching students’ cultural competence. They may also provide opportunities for students to develop skills in leadership and practice inquiry, cornerstones of DNP practice.
Finally, funding must be made available to support the vision that advanced practice nurses will assume a large measure of responsibility for the success of healthcare reform in the United States. Improvement in the healthcare system requires the collaborative effort of many disciplines. At present, the current “system of medical education and graduate training… is not aligned with the delivery system reforms essential for increasing the value of health care in the United States.” [54, page 103] The current system of funding graduate medical education does not provide sufficient resources to support the education of nurses in clinical practice settings. While it is typical for medical residents to be supported with salaries, stipends, living allowances, and even resources such as equipment and textbooks, responsibility for APRN clinical education rests solely with the students themselves. Educating an effective nursing workforce is a responsibility that must be shared by nursing programs, academic institutions, and government agencies with support from policy makers who will stand firm in sponsoring a coherent and appropriate approach to the education of a collaborative workforce . It will not be sufficient to simply provide increases in available loans or to improve loan repayment programs; for APRN clinical education to be on par with medical education, nursing classroom and clinical education must receive full financial support. Further, there must be improvements in Medicare compensation for services provided by APRNs, including those related to performance as clinical preceptors and research mentors. Funding for improved and financially supported residency programs for APRNs could come from federal programs that accept a mandate to provide healthcare services to all citizens or that compensate physicians at greater rates than APRNs for the provision of equal services .
The Institute of Medicine Report on The Future of Nursing  calls for increasing the supply of highly educated and clinically skilled APRNs who can practice to the fullest possible extent of their scope of practice. Clearly, APRNs have the potential to contribute to the provision of high-quality healthcare as part of comprehensive healthcare reform in the United States. If this vision is to be accomplished, however, numerous challenges inherent in the current APRN educational process and barriers in the practice environment must be overcome. This paper has identified challenges that specifically hinder the clinical education of APRNs and proposed strategies and solutions to help educational institutions address them. In preparing this paper, we considered our personal experience and explored the literature describing innovative approaches and strategies that have been successful for others. These approaches to APRN clinical education can affect a radical transformation in the preparation of APRNs and help ensure the healthcare needs of US citizens are met by a diverse and collaborative workforce of professionals united in a vision to optimize the practice potential of all practitioners. It is imperative that nurse educators work with all stakeholders to improve the education of APRNs through the identification and implementation of best practice clinical education strategies designed to overcome the current barriers to the provision of high-quality clinical experiences.
The authors would like to thank Dr. Ruth Bindler for her support.
The Importance of Nursing Research
Martha S. Tingen, PhD, APRN, BC, Professor, Anna H. Burnett, BSN, RN, Rachel B. Murchison, BSN, RN, and Haidong Zhu, PhD, MD, Assistant Professor
Medical College of Georgia, Georgia Prevention Institute, Ms. Murchison is Staff Nurse, MCG Health Inc., Shock Trauma ICU, Augusta, and Ms. Burnett is Staff Nurse, Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, Neonatal ICU, Atlanta, Georgia.
Address correspondence to Martha S. Tingen, PhD, APRN, BC, Professor, Medical College of Georgia, Georgia Prevention Institute, HS-1755, Augusta, GA 30912; ude.gcm@negnitm.
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J Nurs Educ. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2013 Jun 10.
Published in final edited form as:
J Nurs Educ. 2009 Mar; 48(3): 167–170.
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Nursing research has a tremendous influence on current and future professional nursing practice, thus rendering it an essential component of the educational process. This article chronicles the learning experiences of two undergraduate nursing students who were provided with the opportunity to become team members in a study funded by the National Institute of Nursing Research. The application process, the various learning opportunities and responsibilities performed by the students, and the benefits and outcomes of the experience are described. The authors hope that by sharing their learning experiences, more students will be given similar opportunities using the strategies presented in this article. Nursing research is critical to the nursing profession and is necessary for continuing advancements that promote optimal nursing care.
Throughout the 21st century, the role of nurse has evolved significantly. Nurses work in a variety of settings, including the hospital, the classroom, the community health department, the business sector, home health care, and the laboratory. Although each role carries different responsibilities, the primary goal of a professional nurse remains the same: to be the client's advocate and provide optimal care on the basis of evidence obtained through research.
Baccalaureate programs in the United States prepare students for entry-level nursing positions. The focus is to care for individuals throughout the human life span. Knowledge is acquired from textbooks, classroom and Web-based instruction, simulation, and clinical experiences. The goal of all programs is for students to graduate as safe, entry-level professionals, having received a well-rounded exposure to the nursing field. Students are exposed to evidence-based nursing practice throughout their curriculum; however, the allocated time for nursing research is often limited. Many programs require only one 3-credit hour course for nursing research. This amount of time is limited, despite the broad spectrum of nursing research and its influence on current and future nursing care.
Research is typically not among the traditional responsibilities of an entry-level nurse. Many nurses are involved in either direct patient care or administrative aspects of health care. Nursing research is a growing field in which individuals within the profession can contribute a variety of skills and experiences to the science of nursing care. There are frequent misconceptions as to what nursing research is. Some individuals do not even know how to begin to define nursing research. According to Polit and Beck (2006), nursing research is:
systematic inquiry designed to develop knowledge about issues of importance to nurses, including nursing practice, nursing education, and nursing administration. (p. 4)
Nursing research is vital to the practice of professional nursing, and the importance of its inclusion during undergraduate instruction cannot be overemphasized. Only with exposure and experience can students begin to understand the concept and importance of nursing research.
The purpose of this article is to describe undergraduate students’ experiences of becoming aware of and participating in a federally funded research study from the National Institute of Nursing Research. As a part of funding for the study, which was an AREA award (Academic Research Enhancement Award, R15 mechanism), there were designated opportunities for student involvement. The primary aim of the research study was to investigate the effects of gene-environment interactions on risk factors of preclinical cardiovascular disease in a cohort of 585 young adults who all had a positive family history of cardiovascular disease (i.e., essential hypertension or premature myocardial infarction at age 55 or younger in one or both biological parents or in one or more grandparents), verified in the medical record. Specific genes examined included cytochrome P-450, family 1, subfamily A, polypeptide 1; cytochrome P-450 2A; glutathione S-transferase mu 1; and glutathione S-transferase theta 1. Cardiovascular-dependent measures were diastolic blood pressure, endothelium-dependent arterial vasodilation, left ventricular mass indexed for body size, systolic blood pressure, and total peripheral resistance. The effects of ethnicity and gender were also explored.
The learning process began with the principal investigator (M.S.T.) of the study visiting the junior class (class of 2007) of baccalaureate students at the Medical College of Georgia. This particular student group was chosen due to their academic standing because they would have the chance to take full advantage of learning directly from a nurse researcher for one full year before graduation. The principal investigator briefly presented and discussed the growing field of nursing research, the advancements made by nursing research, and the critical role of nursing research to nursing practice. The principal investigator also presented an overview of the funded research study and extended an invitation to students to apply for two part-time positions on the grant that were designed specifically for nursing student involvement. Students recognized the excellent opportunity and were intrigued with the future possibilities. They understood this option was unique and appeared to be a great pathway for becoming an active participant in learning the nursing research process through involvement in an official nursing research study.
The principal investigator established objective criteria for the application process. The criteria included writing a maximum 1-page essay sharing the reasons why the students wanted to join the research project as a team member and also sharing their personal and professional goals for involvement in the study. Many students were interested; thus, it was a very competitive process. The principal investigator reviewed the essays and selected approximately 10 prospective individuals for an interview. The interview was an extension of the essay. At the interview, the principal investigator further described the positions, provided a detailed overview of the grant, and had the opportunity to gain a better understanding of the student candidates. The students were encouraged to ask questions to further understand the expectations of the prospective opportunity. The interview also provided the students with increased exposure to the study's goal and more familiarization with the expectations of the funded positions.
After the interview process was completed, two individuals were selected, per the grant specifications. The selected individuals described the interview process as a positive experience that helped solidify their desire to become involved in the research study. The principal investigator emphasized that this job opportunity was designed to be a learning experience in which the students would be guided through the entire research study process and become members of a multidisciplinary team. Time responsibilities for each student included approximately 6 hours per week. The principal investigator communicated clearly that the nursing baccalaureate program was the first priority for the students, and thus provided a flexible work schedule.
Research Study Experience
The students began working in early april 2006. The first step in the work experience included 6 weeks of funded orientation. This was their first exposure to the research process; thus, it was important for the students to be provided with a strong foundation. Orientation included attending a team meeting and being introduced to the members of the multidisciplinary team (i.e., biostatistician, cardiologist, geneticists, nurse researcher, and psychologist, all of whom served as co-investigators, and the genetic laboratory personnel); reviewing the grant application; completing the Collaborative Institutional Training Initiative (CITI) (2000); completing the Roche educational program on genetics; and touring the worksite facilities. Reviewing the grant gave the students a better understanding of the specific aims and objectives of the study and the intended procedures of the genetic laboratory work in which the students would be involved. The complexity of the grant required the principal investigator to further explain and clarify specific details. The CITI training, which is required by the institution's Office of Human Research Protection, was completed online and took approximately 5.5 hours. The CITI program was presented in a tutorial format, and satisfactory completion of numerous quizzes was required. The task was tedious and time consuming, but valuable and essential, as it increased the awareness of the established codes of conduct for research. At the conclusion of the CITI training, the students understood the necessary policies and procedures for maintaining security and confidentiality of human subjects, the legal and ethical issues regarding the research process, and the essential procedures for research conduct.
Although the students had a basic understanding of genetics, they completed the Roche Genetics Education Program (2004) to gain a deeper understanding. The program was direct and easy to navigate and was excellent for all learning styles, as it contained both visual and auditory explanations. The explanations covered both basic and complex genetic concepts. Through the use of the genetics program, the students were able to comprehend abstract genetic details and to further understand the importance and influence of genetics on personal health. To conclude the orientation process, students were taught basic laboratory procedures, such as polymerase chain reaction and restrictive enzyme digestion, which were used to perform genotyping for the study. After these procedures had been observed several times, the students were given the opportunity to acquire hands-on experience with these laboratory techniques. Each of these components of the orientation process provided the students with the needed foundation for becoming involved in the research study.
After approximately 2 months of orientation, the students were ready to begin working in the genetics laboratory. One of the primary responsibilities of the students would be to further learn and become confident with genotyping techniques. The laboratory was shared among research personnel of several funded studies, with various research experiments being conducted concurrently. The students, under the supervision of the principal investigator and geneticist (H.Z.), also worked with experienced research assistants to perform the genotyping. The students maintained a daily log describing the laboratory genotyping procedures and experiments, and these logs were reviewed at team meetings. Although the actual procedure for polymerase chain reaction seemed straightforward, the students quickly learned that quality control must be used. Sometimes during genotyping, the DNA samples did not produce results. The students discovered that there are numerous contributing factors to successful polymerase chain reaction, such as quality of DNA templates, primer specifications, temperature settings, gel conditions, pipette measuring accuracy, and general laboratory techniques. Even the slightest error could result in permanent DNA sample loss, major experiment failure, or DNA sample contamination.
The students met with the research team members frequently to discuss and troubleshoot potential solutions and problem solve techniques that would foster improving the success rate and productivity of the genotyping. From the laboratory experience, the students learned that every detail must be considered and addressed precisely and meticulously when conducting experiments. Sometimes the process became frustrating, but the students soon discovered that patience and persistence were the most important attributes for a laboratory researcher to possess. The laboratory experience was an excellent hands-on learning opportunity. The students no longer viewed research as strictly information gathered from a journal or textbook, but rather as a physical act that required extreme concentration, dedication, and determination.
After spending numerous months in the laboratory performing the required genotyping, the students had the opportunity to be exposed to another role of a nurse researcher. They performed literature reviews regarding the study. Although the students had written papers in their nursing school program that required literature citations, they were not familiar with all of the library resources available to them. In no time, the students learned which library and online resources had the most validity and what would be the most relevant to their study. The literature search results provided the students and principal investigator with information on new studies that had been conducted on gene-environment interactions regarding tobacco smoke exposure and cardiovascular disease. From the literature review experience, the students learned the importance of being selective and time efficient. Often when a search was first begun, thousands of articles were listed, but the students learned the importance of narrowing the searches to the specific areas of focus. After the students completed their searches, they met with the principal investigator, who provided direction on the articles identified as the most relevant to the study.
The students continued working with the principal investigator during data review, analysis, and preparation of dissemination of the results (i.e., the publishing process). They helped to prepare an abstract submission of the study presented at an international meeting (Tingen et al., 2007). They also helped with the preparation of manuscripts of the study results. By the conclusion of their work experience, the students will have been exposed to and participated in the entire research process.
Benefits and Outcomes
From the students’ perspectives, this opportunity was extremely beneficial. Prior to this experience, the students were not familiar with nursing research. Their original perception of research was that it was conducted by people with chemistry, biology, biochemistry, and genetic degrees in laboratories at major universities. They now realize that nursing and research can be combined and that optimal nursing care is dependent on the latest research findings. In addition, the students believe this opportunity has been beneficial in learning that nurse researchers are valuable to nurses in other settings. For example, one of the long-term goals of this research study is to develop appropriate interventions for children who are more susceptible to and at risk for the harmful effects of tobacco smoke due to their genetic heritage. The information obtained by a nurse researcher can be disseminated to nurses who work directly with the individuals to whom the research applies. Practice that has shown to be effective through research allows nurses to better advocate for patients and provide the best possible care. Although the majority of nurses who provide patient care will be consumers of nursing research, implementing evidence-based nursing practice is crucial to provide optimal nursing care. Information from nursing research has the potential to directly impact the care provided to patients in all health care settings.
Now that the students have had the opportunity to become more familiar with nursing research through involvement as team members, they recognize that their future professional possibilities are endless. Nursing research is an emerging and growing field in which individuals can apply their nursing education to discover new advancements that promote evidence-based care. They learned the research process and the important roles that each team member plays during the study phases of conception, design, implementation, analysis, and dissemination. Each aspect of the research process is important and contributes to the overall success of the study.
The students also discovered the benefit of trying new things. Prior to this experience, they had little exposure to the research process and nursing research. Consequently, they had to be receptive to learning and recognize that acquiring new knowledge was a gradual process. At times, the students felt anxious because all aspects were new, but they realized that without trying, they would never advance and feel comfortable with the research process. As the students reflected, they thought this was an excellent growing experience professionally, scholastically, and personally. In addition, this opportunity benefited the students’ peers through discussions and their sharing of work responsibilities, the research process, and the importance of evidence-based practice. As future nurses, the students are strong proponents of nursing research, and this experience has also broadened their horizons regarding future professional growth and opportunities. In addition, they have a better understanding of the importance of scientific evidence to support their clinical practice. As a result, the students thought that a stronger emphasis should be placed on nursing research in undergraduate baccalaureate education and that more students should have the opportunity to participate as team members in nursing research studies.
The students were almost one full year into nursing school and thought they had learned about all of the possibilities for their futures when they were first presented with this learning opportunity. They knew their future options were numerous and included working in acute care and community settings. They also realized they could further their education and pursue graduate degrees to include a master's degree and become an administrator, educator, clinical nurse specialist, nurse anesthetist, or nurse practitioner, or potentially pursue a doctorate. They did not know there was an emerging and growing field in which their nursing education could be applied and furthered—the area of research and the role of becoming a nurse researcher. Prior to this experience, students perceived their possibilities for a professional career in nursing were tremendous. Now by being involved in the entire process of conducting a federally funded research study, they realized their future professional possibilities are limitless.
The authors of this paper hope that by sharing their experience, they will encourage both nursing faculty and nursing students to not only introduce the research process into the nursing curriculum, but also to consider making nursing research a tangible and more integrated process. They think that a more beneficial approach to the introduction of research may be achieved through incorporating research-related content into each nursing course throughout the educational process. This could be conducted in addition to the current curriculum plan of many schools of nursing that require a single and concentrated 3-hour research course with a goal of research becoming a positive experience for students that is enthusiastically received as a new learning opportunity. In addition, students who are involved as team members in a funded research study may be provided with scheduled classroom opportunities for making progress reports to their peers. Also, the students could field questions regarding the research project and their experiences. These activities may foster increased learning and interest about research among the students’ classmates.
As nursing students are the future members of the nursing profession, and for the profession to continue to advance, nursing research must be the foundation of comprehensive, evidence-based clinical practice. This may only occur with increased exposure to nursing research. Therefore, it is critical that the future members of the nursing profession be exposed to, develop an appreciation for, and become more involved in nursing research, and thus incorporate its outcomes into the delivery of optimal professional nursing practice.
The lead author was awarded a grant (NR008871) from the National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Nursing Research.
- Collaborative Institutional Training Initiative [April 14, 2006];Office of Human Research Protection. The Medical College of Georgia. 2000 from http://www.mcg.edu/Research/ohrp/training/citi.html.
- Polit DF, Beck CT. Essentials of nursing research: Methods, appraisal, and utilization. 6th ed. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; Philadelphia: 2006.
- Roche Genetics Education Program [May 10, 2006];Education. 2004 from http://www.roche.com/research_and_development_r_d_overview/education.htm.
- Tingen MS, Ludwig DA, Dong Y, Zhu H, Andrews JO, Burnett AH, et al. Tobacco smoke exposure and genetics: Youth at risk for cardiovascular disease.. Proceedings of the 13th Annual Meeting of the Society for Research on Nicotine and Tobacco.2007. p. 39.